Rolando Herrera has worked with some of the best winemakers in Napa Valley, a position he now also holds. He has made wine at some of the valley’s best wineries, including his own – Mi Sueno, located in the up-and-coming Coombsville District. A couple of years ago I was researching an article on Coombsville for The World of Fine Wine, giving me my first occasion to talk with Herrera. At that time, I asked his evaluation of Coombsville and where it fits in the valley’s pecking order of places to grow grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I was working as a winemaker for Paul Hobbs, but I was also looking for grapes to make my own wine,” he told me, remembering when he was starting Mi Sueno in 1997. “I was very skeptical of buying Coombsville grapes, but they were all I could afford. But when I crushed the grapes, I said to myself, ‘I think I have discovered my own little Bordeaux in Napa Valley!’ What I found was that Coombsville Cabernet could give me the hang time I couldn’t find in other parts of the valley. Mother Nature could give me a few more days without running the Brix up to 30.”
Herrera has an interesting back story. He was born in Mexico and permanently moved to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 15. Like many young immigrants, he started working at one of the lowest-paying jobs in the hospitality industry, washing dishes in a restaurant, in his case, the fancy Auberge du Soleil. But a harvest position in 1985 with the exacting Warren Winiarski at the legendary Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar allowed Herrera to gradually climb the ladder and become cellar master there. In time, he also worked as assistant winemaker at the bizarre yet innovative Chateau Potelle, as winemaker at upscale Vine Cliff, and as director of winemaking at Hobbs. In 1997, at 30 years of age, Herrera’s hard work, ambition, and understanding of vineyards and winemaking paid off. Although continuing to work elsewhere for several years, he and his wife Lorena opened Mi Sueno, and he also has operated a vineyard management business since 2003.
In his almost 40 years in Napa Valley, Herrera has gained an intimate knowledge of the valley’s vineyards, including a growing number of his own. So one afternoon a few days ago, we decided to continue our discussion by phone about the many facets of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
“What is your favorite vintage of Napa Cab?” I begin. Without a pause, Herrera says, “It was 1985, my first vintage at Stag’s Leap. It was amazing. The bottle of Cask 23 woke my heart up to wine.” Then he follows with other great vintages, most in the current century – the ’02, the ’05 and “’13 was amazing.”
Continuing, “We’ve discussed the various Napa Valley districts somewhat previously,” I say, “but which one would you choose if you wanted to make a Cab that would last forever?” A slight pause this time. “Probably Mt. Veeder because of its tannins and its more-earthy tones.”
“Which one would you choose for a wine to show finesse?” “Probably Stags Leap,’ he replies, “because its wines are very elegant.” He repeats Winiarski’s characterization of wine of that region as being “an iron fish in a velvet glove.” Herrera also adds Coombsville somewhere near the top, mainly because of its savory and minerally notes. “Coombsville is one of the coolest appellations for Cabernets, and the ripening is longer and results in higher acidity, lower alcohols, and wines that balance richness with brightness.”
This evolves into a discussion of mountain grapes in general and the kind of wines they make. “I love the savory characteristics of Diamond Mountain,” he says, calling its wines “Stags Leap on steroids. They have stunning structure, richness, suppleness and intensity.” He also loves Spring Mountain (“small berries with big flavors”) and Atlas Peak, where he does work with the famous Stagecoach Vineyard. With Howell Mountain, he says “they are hard to drink when they’re young because of their tannins – almost European in style – but they age beautifully.”
Does he have any preference about how much Cab to put in one of his blends? “I don’t work that way,” he says. “Whatever the grapes, I look for balance, good structure and mid-palate richness.” He remarks somewhat wistfully that he would like sometime to make a Bordeaux-style red using all five grape varieties. “I’ve just planted some Cab Franc on Mt. Veeder,” Herrera says, which should be ready soom. Surprisingly, the missing ingredient is Merlot. “I’m still looking.”
Finally, I ask about the current status of Mexican-American winemakers and owners in Napa, and he says he’s optimistic. “It took a few generations to get the ability and curiosity,” he says. “My father was a farmer, but he didn’t think about growing grapes. For me it was a natural thing. Like the Italian and German immigrants before us, Mexican-Americans now have our opportunity.”
And what about his children working at Mi Sueno? “I have five daughters and one son, and two or three of them have some curiosity,” Herrera says. “But I tell them, once you’re done with school, go travel the world, do other things. You only get one chance to do that.”